A spectre is haunting startups — the spectre of the brogrammer. Several prominent, quivering articles would lead you to believe the American university frat houses have emptied into tech, spreading misogyny, keg stands, and chest bumps throughout. This is bullshit. I met one.
The underlying terror is that the same arseholes who were arseholes in Uni are now arseholes in the tech sector. Instead of smart, passionate, creative coders, you have the brogrammer: A sleaze in a popped collar who will slap your arse if you walk by and call you a fag from across the quad office. He moves in packs with other brogrammers. He rips shots of Jack Daniels at his computer. He will try to fight you. He is, in the terrified words of Gina Trapani, turning the office into a den “of frat house fun.” Fun? No. And it gets worse! “Brogrammer culture celebrates frat house values, youth over experience and men over women.”
So where are these white whales? Nobody seemed to know. I spoke with two eminent women in tech from both coasts — one working for a web service you’re probably using today — and neither could think of brogrammer they’ve met or know. One was more emphatic: “THEY DO NOT EXIST. WOOLY MAMMOTH,” I was messaged.
So when I found the opportunity to meet Malcolm Jones, a self-professed brogrammer, I had to see how bad the scourge was for myself. I’d been tipped off by my friend Jackie, who has ovaries yet was somehow thriving in this toxic climate of “frat house values” at her workplace, Behance, a creative startup near Gizmodo’s New York office. If the brogrammer was real, I would confront him collar to collar.
And I’d know if I spotted the real thing, because I know the bona fide frat specimen when I see one. In fact, I used to be one. And I’m still friends with current, verified bros — one of which, soon to work in finance like many of the other real-life bros I graduated college with, shot me over a picture of him “looking like a bro” when I asked him to:
These are bros. They will call each other bro. They chew tobacco, shotgun beers, and spent a lot of time studying econ in the the hopes of punching corporate finance in its dumb face and picking up the dimes that fall out. Sometimes they’ll talk playfully about sluts, or hedge funds, or cool ties — at their occasional silliest, the perfect, shimmering hybrid of the southern boor and the northern prig. Really, they’re benign. Friendly guys and very well educated, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll end up working on the next app you download. It’s just not their thing — and that’s OK. Division of labour, and whatever.
Malcolm Jones is not, in the truest, beerest sense of the word, a bro. First of all, the white whale isn’t white — caucasian assholery being a staple of the bro archetype. Malcolm was also the president of a fraternity at the University of Virginia, which he recounts with a lot of fondness and pride. Most of his bro friends from that world are working in finance or “consulting,” like mine. But his undergrad experience notwithstanding, Malcolm is a giant nerd like me, wearing slim pants, a flannel shirt, (non Mardis Gras) beads, and dorkily ironic sunglass. At most frat houses, he’d be ushered out as some kind of hipster. At his desk, with one leg casually propped over the arm of a chair so worn down from slouching it’ll soon snap off, he looks at a headache-inducing cascade of code. Code he’s working on day in and day out, for 15 hours at a time, he says. I ask Malcolm what he’s been toiling over, and his face swells with excitement. Planning an office foam party? Not quite. He sprints through an explanation of his work — something to do with hard drives, but impossibly beyond my level of comprehension. I smile and nod and he keeps going. He loves this shit.
And it makes sense — Malcolm’s been this way since he was small, walked into nerddom by his computer scientist father, enamoring him with computers way before he knew what a startup was. He now sits at a desk adorned with an explosion of data and a Street Fighter figurine, personifying everything it means to be a geek: Enormously focused passion from an almost infinite font of talent. The willingness to work into the morning to make invisible changes to a system of technology you’ll never be able to explain to anyone at a bar or use to impress a girl. When Malcolm talked about having recently added a Pinterest button to Behance, it was the first time I saw someone so pleased with himself in a while.
Actual bros, as a general rule, do not speak excitedly about Pinterest.
So what makes Malcolm a brogrammer? Clearly not misogyny or frat house values. Jackie, who isn’t forced to wear a tube top or dance on a couch at work, talks eagerly about going out with Malcolm and other coworkers. Another female Behance employee walks by and they all chat for a moment. It’s almost as if Malcolm’s brogramming hasn’t alienated the entire office. Rather, he’s taken on the title facetiously, simply because he enjoys having fun when he’s not working. He wore a fake afro for an entire month after losing a bet. He likes to go out and rave with a fellow brogrammer after coding marathons. He doesn’t have BO. He doesn’t wear a manga tie to work. This isn’t the cast of Office Space — it’s an increasing number of tech employees who seem like frat house radicals only because they’re not introverted losers. The shift of coding from Dilbert niche to lucrative, enjoyable, mainstream career.
There are horrible horses’ asses sprinkled at startups, of course. But as Jackie points out, why would they ever last long in any job like this? Tech is too bristling and wild to put up with a lot of stuffed shirts and conservatism. Fine, maybe even some of these jerks are bros. But the brogrammer as phenomenon is mythology, a fairytale figure conjured up by the confused and outmoded to explain progress in an old and stodgy industry.
“I think what has changed,” agrees my Anonymous Female Tech Authority, “is that engineers are thought of as awkward tech nerds with glasses. And now they are beer-slugging dudes who stare at sales ladies’ boobs.” From one false image to another, alarmed, diffident journalists have spun a bogeybro out of vapor, lumping guys like Malcolm into a group he couldn’t be further from. “Labels aren’t helpful,” she continues. “What’s next? ‘slutgineers’: FEMALE ENGINEERS WHO HAVE SEX.” Shudder to think.
As I got ready to head out, I asked Malcolm if he wanted to chug a quick beer as a goodbye. He laughed and said yes — I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, and he wasn’t sure if I was kidding, and, like two nerds. we shook hands and both hurried back to work.